With hundreds of tribes and ethnic groups, the Northeast of India is a rich repository of tribal customs and culture. It’s a way of life that’s fast disappearing but there’s still a lot one can discover from the people living in some of the remotest corners of India. From sustainable farming practises to a long tradition of handloom and handicrafts and unique socio-religious customs, the resourcefulness of Northeast’s tribal population will surprise you.
Khasis are the dominant tribe in this eastern state followed by the Garos. The latter, predominantly, occupy the Garo Hills in the western part of the state. Meanwhile, the Khasis residing in Jaintia Hills are known as Jaintias. The Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi and War tribes, collectively known as the Hynniewtrep people, are known to be one of the earliest ethnic groups of settlers in the Indian sub-continent belonging to the Proto Austroloid race. Due to the influence of Welsh missionaries, almost 85% of Khasi people have adopted Christianity, but a sizeable minority still follow their ancestral religion, Niam Khasi. Garo religion is specifically ‘animistic’ and believes in a supreme god known as Tatara Rabuga. Another interesting characteristic is that the Khasis follow the matrilineal tradition. The youngest daughter inherits, children take their mother’s surname, and once married, men live in their mother-in-law’s home.
Home to 26 major and over 100 sub-tribes, Arunachal is one of the last bastions of indigenous tribes who still follow ancestral traditions and can trace their origins to central Tibet, Mongolia and China. Some of the major tribes are Adi, Apatani, Monpa, Singpho, Khamti and Mishmi. The Apatanis, who reside in Ziro Valley, are known for their colourful festivals, intricate handloom designs, skill in cane and bamboo crafts and vibrant traditional village councils called bulyañ. Wearing of circular nose plugs and tattooing of faces is the most characteristic aspect of ornamentation of older Apatani women. Like the Apatanis, the Adi and Mishmi tribes follow an ancient religion known as Donyi Polo that worships nature. The Adis, which translates to “hill or mountain top”, are largely self-sufficient with their rice fields, orange orchards and hunting. The Mishmi, who occupy the Lower Dibang Valley, are known for their love of silver. The women wear a silver headband, silver bodkins and a pair of dumbbell shaped earplugs, all of them finely embossed. But it’s their silver smoking pipe that really stands out.
Meanwhile, the Monpas, who occupy 97% of Tawang district, are mainly Buddhists. They’re known for their wood carving, Thangka painting, carpet making and weaving. The Singphos, who also follow Buddhism, are believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers. They process tea by first heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-drying them for a few days.
Sikkim is made up of three ethnic groups: Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali. While over 70% of the population comprise of Nepalese, Lepchas are widely considered to be the first settlers of Sikkim. Bordering the Khangchendzonga National Park, Dzongu, which straddles the Himalayan and Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspots, is also home to about 4,000 Lepchas, the only residents of Dzongu. Outsiders, even from within Sikkim, need a permit to enter.
The Lepchas believe that they have descended from Tukbothing and Nazong Nyu, equivalent to Adam and Eve, who were said to have been created by God from the pristine snows of Mount Khangchendzonga’s peak. Most Lepchas are Buddhist, a religion brought by the Bhutias from the north, although a large number have adopted Christianity today. Some Lepchas have not given up their traditional shamanistic religion known as Mun.
Nagaland is populated by 16 major tribes and many more sub tribes, namely, the Angami, Ao, Konyak, Liangmai and Tangkhul. Weaving is a tradition handed down through generations in Nagaland and each tribe has their own intricately designed costumes, headgear and jewellery. Among many tribes, the design of the shawl denotes the social status of the wearer. Some of the more known shawls include Tsungkotepsu and Rongsu of the Ao tribe, the Angami Lohe shawls with thick embroidered animal motifs and the red and black Rongkhim worn by Yimchunger Naga tribe. Interestingly, the Konyaks, who were once known for their headhunting practice and elaborate facial tattoos, reside in the forested interiors of Nagaland. While most tribes continue to celebrate their own cultural festivals, 90% of the population has converted to Christianity.
The Census of India 2001 lists about 14 scheduled tribes in this remote northeastern state including the Lushai, Chakma, Pawi, Lakher and Hmar among others. According to local folklore, the Mizos emerged from under a large rock covering known as Chhinlung. Some historians believe that Chhinlung refers to an ancient Chinese city in the Yunnan Province of China from where the Mizos migrated to the Chin Hills in Myanmar during the 13th Century AD, before making their way to present day Mizoram. While 87% of Mizos have converted to Christianity, they still celebrate several of their harvest festivals observing traditional customs. One such ritual is the Cheraw or bamboo dance performed by both men and women. Typically, the men hold bamboo poles close to the ground which they move rhythmically as the dancers step in between them.
Of the 19 major tribes in Tripura, some of the dominant ones are Tripuri, Reang, Jamatia, Chakma and Noatia. Tripuri, which is the largest indigenous tribe in the state, are of Indo-Mongoloid origin and speak in Kok-Borok dialect like seven other tribes in Tripura. Tripura was under the rule of Tripuri kings till it merged with the Indian dominion in 1949. Ethnically, Tripuris are mainly Hindus who follow both the Shakti cult and Vaishnavism. Reang, which is the second largest tribal community, is recognised as one of the 75 primitive tribes in India. Reangs are said to have migrated from Shan state of upper Burma (now Myanmar) in different waves to the Chittagong Hill tracts and then to southern part of Tripura. This nomadic tribe practises hilltop jhum cultivation (slash and burn agriculture) apart from hunting and fishing. Largely, a Hindu state, the tribes observe several mainstream Hindu festivals along with regional customs. The well-maintained Tripura State Tribal Museum is a good place to acquaint oneself with the tribal community of this northeastern state.
Though not recognised as a tribe, the Meiteis form the largest ethnic group in Manipur. Before Hinduism made its presence felt during the 18th century, the Meiteis followed their own religion called Sanamahi. Pakhangba – known as the snake god and symbolised by a looped serpent or dragon-like form – is their main deity and there are several shrines dedicated to Lord Ibudhou Pakhangba in Manipur. As followers of the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism, it’s no surprise to learn that they have their own version of Ras Leela – performed by dancers wearing the potloi (a bucket shaped skirt) with gossamer veils covering their faces. The Meiteis are known for their prowess in weaving and handlooms. In fact, across many villages women weave their own traditional outfits – the phanek (a sarong-like skirt) and inna phee or rani phee (a cotton or silk dupatta). Keen horse breeders, Manipur is also believed to be birthplace of polo. Indigenous hill tribes such as the Nagas in the north and the Kukis in the south make up the rest of the population.
A multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic state, Assam is home to over 30 tribal groups. Of these, the Bodos form the dominant tribal population followed by Mishings (also known as Miri), Karbis (also known as Mikir), Rabhas and Kacharis. The Bodos represents one of the largest ethnic and linguistic groups of the Brahmaputra valley. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese lingual family – the second linguistic group to have entered Assam after the Austroasiatic. Meanwhile, the Mishings, who were originally part of hills tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, migrated down to the plains of Assam between 13th and 14th century A.D. It is believed that the original home of the various ethnic groups speaking the Tibeto-Burman languages was in western China near the Yangtze and the Huang He rivers from where they entered Myanmar and India following the course of the Brahmaputra, Chindwin and the Irrawaddy rivers.
Interestingly, the tea tribes of Assam, though not recognised as a scheduled tribe, also form a large majority of the population (about 20%). They were brought to Assam as indentured labourers by the British from states such as Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal during the 1860-90s. Ethnically, they belong to various tribal groups such as the Santhals, Mundas and Gonds. Most of them have converted to Christianity but observe festivities such as Christmas with some of their own tribal traditions such as the jhumur folk dance.